Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New French Bistro In Town...

When we heard the news that Chef Jean-Francois Meteigner was closing down La Cachette restaurant in Century City we did not take it well. We have had many wonderful meals there and have always admired his creativity and precision in the kitchen. Though this fine dining establishment was closing, we were thrilled to hear he would be opening a bistro in Santa Monica. It's much more casual, targets a younger crowd and is a bit more Int'l in cuisine (strong Asian & California influence into French Bistro cooking).

So after much anticipation, we managed to make a reservation a week after it opened. When we got there, we opted for the patio, but got stuck waiting close to a half hour to get a table. As we sat at the bar waiting and drinking a decent & fairly priced sparkling rose ($7/glass) and a beer of Aligash White (awesome Belgium style beer), we couldn't help but find some disappointment in the decor. It doesn't strike you as a classic bistro, or for that matter a hip bistro, but rather a converted lobby of an office building into a restaurant.
That said, the menu genuinely excited us. It is a lengthy menu (would take a number of visits to conquer), is truly int'l, but still manages to include some of the classic dishes from the old La Cachette. We started with a couple of different apps to share including the Crab, Avocado and Heirloom Tomato Tower with Lemon Olive Oil (our favorite app), Oysters with ceviche seasoning (good oysters but not worth the price), Hawaiian Ahi Tuna Tartar with Korean chili paste (also very good), and Fresh Hawaiian Hearts of Palm "Two Ways" with truffle oil dressing. All the dishes were actually fantastic, except for that I felt the oysters needed a nice vinegar-shallot sauce. I want to stress that the first timers try the crab and avocado tower. It was served cold and has amazing flavor (acidity was perfect) and comes across as a truly refreshing dish. Additionally, the truffle dressing with the Hearts of Palm is out of this world, but unfortunately the dish could have used a bit more dressing so make sure to ask for extra!

The entrees were equally as good. I ordered the Bouillabaisse with fish, clams, prawns and scallops. This was excellent and may have been the best Bouillabaisse I've ever had. Make sure to ask for the crostini's and rouille as I believe it completes the dish. My husband ordered the Krobuta Pork Shank, braised with honey & vinegar. It was served with sour cherries and mashed potatoes, which really complimented the flavors of the meat. Our friends got the Eco Mussels w/garlic, shallot, thyme, carrots, and celery in a light creamy white wine & saffron broth served with french fries on the side. This dish was good but nothing great (solid fries, average moules). The last entree was truly unique. It was a lightly smoked Alaskan True Cod, served alongside house-made Organic Salmon Sausages (creative and packed with flavor), fennel sauerkraut, and fennel lemon sauce. This sounds strange, but the sauerkraut made the dish...all I can say to the chef on this one -Bravo!

Always nice to finish with something sweet, something the former La Cachette excelled at. We had an apple tart with crème fraiche (crispy and perfect) and then a chocolate banana crepe. here's the verdict. The food is a clear home run, but there are certainly some negatives that are attached to it. In addition to the poor decor, the service was a bit of a mess (main courses came before we were even done with the apps) and the menu prices do not come across as a steal. While we do plan to go back, if the apps were cut down to $10-$12 (currently $14-$18) and entrees to the high teens, we would be absolute regulars. La Cachette Bistro 1733 Ocean Ave. Santa Monica 90401 310-434-9509

La Cachette Bistro
1733 Ocean Ave.
Santa Monica 90401

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Italian & Croatian Vacation!

My husband and I recently got back from a fabulous 2 week vacation to Italy & Croatia. We visited Ponza (S. of Rome off the coast), Hvar, Dubrovnik and Lake Como. We pretty much ate and drank our way through the trip...our favorite things to do! If you've ever been to Italy, it's truly amazing how much more you eat there than in the States. Guess with such great food it's hard not to eat least that's my philosophy!

Our first stop was Ponza where the food was pretty remarkable. Pasta's, fresh fish, seafood really can't go wrong. Probably had a caprese salad with roma tomatoes and seafood pasta (with hot olive oil of course) for lunch everyday along with 2 bottles of white wine. Usually had lunch around 1 or 2pm and then dinner around 10pm. Needed a lot of time in between as you can imagine! I do have to mention the coolest lunch spot we found was at Frontone beach. You have to take a boat to get to the beach and then a small hike up the rocks to the restaurant. The view is worth it alone but luckily the food was out of this world. They have one chef (very hippie like), the only one working in a tiny open kitchen, who is busting out all the food with one waiter running all the dishes. Very impressive!

The dinners in Ponza were amazing. The one I am going to highlight is called Acqua Pazza. We decided to go big and get the Chef's tasting menu which included Potato croquettes with a creamy dipping sauce, a shrimp skewer dipped in tomato soup and a side shrimp in crispy flakes, artichoke w/squid carpaccio,
tartar trio (tuna, shrimp, swordfish), tortellini with fresh fish and tomato (surprisingly wasn't very good so we ordered a delicious sea urchin bottarga pasta), and a red snapper w/potatoes and rosemary. We were then served an apricot dessert wine to accompany the desserts. We had an unbelievable chocolate crumble with ginseng ice cream (and I'm not a huge chocolate person) and the other was a super thin biscotti with caramel whip cream and chocolate (not as good as the crumble).

One last addition to Ponza...they had my favorite Italian cocktail - a sgroppino (vodka, prosecco and lemon sorbet) - LOVE!

We started off in Hvar which was beautiful. We stayed at the Adriana hotel which we feel is the best place to stay and they have a great breakfast buffet included which is always nice.

Unfortunately, the food in Croatia isn't reason enough to go there nor is the wine. In fact, the wine is TERRIBLE (stick to Slovenian white wines). For the food, I only recommend the fish dishes as the fish is very fresh. Everyday for lunch I had an octopus salad which I have to say I truly loved. Most were made with grilled octopus, onions and potato and marinated in olive oil. Definitely a delicacy there. For dinner our favorite spot was called Gariful. The setting was stunning and right at the edge of the docks with yachts parked in front. Since we had to wait both nights for a table, even with a reservation, they served us complimentary wine and prosecco while we waited - a very nice touch. The most unique part of the meal is picking out the fish. The manager leads you to a table where a number of fresh fish lay on ice for your choosing. Our favorite fish was the local Sea Bream grilled and drizzled with olive oil and lemon.

We then headed to Dubrovnik which is a medieval town right on the water - so beautiful! We really only had one solid good meal there at a place called Nautika. We got a great seat on the patio overlooking the ocean. We started with a seafood carpaccio sampler (lobster, octopus, shrimp and fish) and fish soup. For the entrees I had the squid ink risotto (pretty much ordered it at all restaurants if it was on the squid ink risotto!) and my husband had lamb with pancetta served with polenta cheese puffs which he enjoyed.

Lake Como
This was our last stop of the trip and by far the best! The best hotel, the best food, the best wine and the best service! We were told we had to go to this lunch restaurant called Locanda dell'ISOLA Comacina which is located on the only island in Lake Como. We had to take a taxi boat there which we used to tour the lake, so it worked out perfectly. There is no menu they just bring out everything to you. Also have to mention it is all you can drink white Gavi wine which is chilled and already waiting for you at the table. Immediately when you finish a bottle they bring you another - does life get better than that?!

The meal starts with 7 veggie antipasti including marinated peppers, marinated beets, marinated carrots, marinated celery, marinated fava beans, marinated cucumbers and these enormous baked onions (wood fired oven) with balsamic and olive oil - unbelievable! All of these were delicious though easy to fill up on. They also brought out a charcuterie plate with bresaola and home smoked ham. The second course (yes only second) was a river caught salmon. It was probably the best salmon we've ever had. They deboned it at the table and seasoned it with lemon, olive oil, salt & pepper. It was super light and fresh. By this point I was super full but knew I had to press on as their were a few dishes left. The third course was a chicken dish. It is cooked in a pot then followed by crisping it on a BBQ (technically fried), then served with lemon and salt. Accompanying the dish is a lemon butter lettuce salad...sounds plain but it was so refreshing and had great flavor. They then come out with a HUGE half of a parmesan wheel which the waiter scoops out a chunk with a knife and serves it directly to you. I loved this! The last course, the dessert course, were fresh peaches with ice cream and liquor (can you believe we were still eating at this point?!).

But wait, there is more...the owner of the restaurant comes around and hands us a small pamphlet with the history of the restaurant and on the cover was a picture of him from his 20's (I would guess) and wearing a beanie. He then comes back out (probably now around 75-80 years old) wearing the same beanie from the picture. It was really cute. He then goes into this 5 minute blessing all in Italian (we had no idea what he was saying) while making this unique coffee liquor for all the customers there. It was such a unique experience.

I wish I could talk about every meal in Lake Como as all are worth mentioning but will try to keep the rest brief.

The other lunches we had were at the Villa d'Este hotel - all were phenomenal. We usually went with the same pasta which was a spaghetti with chunks of crispy proscuitto.

Our favorite dinner there was our last night where we went to George Clooney's favorite spot called Gato Nero. Absolutely amazing! We got a great table in the center of the room (the room is open so you can look out to the lake) which made all the difference. We started out with a fresh Buffalo Mozzarella with grilled
toast. Then we moved on to the pasta course - I had the parpadelle bolognese and my husband had the ravioli with marzano tomatoes, eggplant and ricotta cheese - both incredible. For my entree I had to get the Vitello Tonnato (a favorite of mine). For those of you you who don't know what this is, it's thinly sliced veal served with a tuna sauce. Sounds gross but it's awesome! This one may have been the best I've ever had. My husband ordered the rabbit with bacon which he loved. We had a delicious wine to go with the meal which was a 2006 Le Serre Nuove dell'Ornellaia. While great today, this wine will be killer in 5 years.

Overall, Italy took the cake as expected for wining and dining.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

"Sum" More Please!

It's hard to find a good dim sum place in LA. Even Chinatown, where most people would think to go, is in fact not very good. That said, if one is willing to drive a little further east to Monterrey Park, they will find not only one of the largest Chinese populations in the US, but some incredible food.

We decided to make the drive to what is considered THE best dim sum place in Monterey Park, Elite Restaurant. My husband first went with a friend and raved about it so of course I made him take me there. Because this is not exactly a hidden gem to the community, you have to get there no later than 10:30am to beat the crowd (should still expect to wait of about 15-20 minutes). Upon entering, you'll notice they do not have the carts to choose your dim sum as they do at other restaurants. Almost everything you order is off the menu with the exception of periodic specials of the day.

The menu had all of my favorite items including BBQ pork bao, shrimp dumplings (Har Gao) and pork & shrimp shumai- all of which blew me away (the massive shrimp Har Gao come out especially fresh and piping hot).

As this was my first experience at the restaurant my husband insisted on ordering a few other dishes such as this weird taro ball and these shrimp balls (looked processed) which I was not only grossed out by the look but by the taste. Unfortunately, this led me to forget about all the other great dishes I had so I told my husband I wouldn't go back.

Well, it's a good thing I did because the next time I went I truly enjoyed everything (didn't get anything odd...which was the way to go).

The bao there is seriously the best bao ever! It's a baked bao that is almost pastry-like. The bun is a bit sticky with a honey glaze. It comes out super hot and literally melts in your mouth as you hit that sweet pork inside. I would happily have a few orders of the bao and call it a day. That said, this is never the case with dim sum. We also got a beef chow fun (dry, meaning they do not put an extra sauce on it).....quite delicious. We also got the Chinese broccoli with a brown oyster sauce which is surprisingly sweet. The sticky rice is great as well, although not as unique as the other dishes.

If you are lucky, try a couple of the specials they pass around. They have a fresh Manila clam dish with a black bean sauce that is quite impressive and if you are in the mood for a dessert, they sometimes have a baked bun with a sweet custard inside. It looks similar to the bao, except white with a baby blue foil and crispy. Its also served hot and is definitely the way to end the meal.

Though it's not the closest dim sum restaurant, I am of the view that one simply cannot find anything of quality without taking the drive. This one is well worth it and in my mind, crowned the best dim sum in LA.

Elite Restaurant
700 S. Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park 91754